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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Biden concedes he is powerless to act on guns without Congress

President Joe Biden arrives at Raleigh-Durham International Airport in Morrisville, N.C., on Tuesday, March 28, 2023. Biden on Tuesday declared himself powerless to respond to the scourge of gun violence in America, a remarkably blunt admission one day after an assailant killed six people, including three children, at a school in Nashville.

By Michael D. Shear

President Joe Biden earlier this week declared himself powerless to respond to the scourge of gun violence in America, a remarkably blunt admission one day after an assailant killed six people, including three children, at a school in Nashville, Tennessee.

“I have gone the full extent of my executive authority to do, on my own, anything about guns,” Biden told reporters, responding to questions about what actions he could take to prevent mass shootings.

It was a stark and surprising statement by the president, who essentially threw up his hands in the face of one of the most intractable problems facing American society.

While the political system has remained all but deadlocked for more than a decade on major changes to gun laws — despite one horrifying shooting after another — Biden sought to shift the burden to the senators and representatives who have so far refused to act.

Even with majorities in both houses of Congress during Biden’s first two years in office, Democrats were unable to pass an assault weapons ban, and any effort now is almost certain to fail in the Republican-controlled House.

Biden rejected questions about whether he could, or should, do more through executive actions, such as trying to keep guns out of the hands of criminals or addressing mental health issues that are often viewed as the cause of mass shootings.

“The Congress has to act,” Biden told reporters as he headed for an economic event at a North Carolina semiconductor plant. “The majority of the American people think having assault weapons is bizarre; it’s a crazy idea. They’re against that. And so, I think the Congress should be passing the assault weapons ban.”

To be clear, he said, “I can’t do anything except plead with the Congress to act reasonably.”

Speaking later at the event in North Carolina, Biden did just that, urging Congress to ban assault weapons and saying that they should try to keep “weapons of war” out of the hands of people who could use them to kill children and others.

“People say, ‘Why do I keep saying this if it’s not happening?’” the president said. “Because I want you to know who isn’t doing it. Who isn’t helping. To put pressure on them.”

He added that there was “a moral price to pay for inaction.”

But there was no sign that congressional action was imminent — far from it.

On Tuesday, as Democrats renewed their calls for passing gun safety legislation, Republicans made it clear they were not willing to budge from their opposition to assault weapons bans and other aggressive measures.

“With respect to any discussion of legislation, it’s premature,” said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., citing an “ongoing investigation” and the need to collect more facts.

Other members of his party went further, seizing on the gender of the assailant, who authorities said identified as transgender, as a way to shift the conversation away from gun safety measures. Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, said in a post on Twitter that the tragedy suggested that “giving into these ideas” about accepting transgender people was “dangerous.”

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., highlighted questions about the shooter’s gender identity, which she said meant that “everyone can stop blaming guns now.”

Quinton Lucas, the chair of the criminal justice committee at the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said the president’s comments echo the deep frustration among many Americans.

“It’s not so much disappointing or surprising, perhaps, that the president says that,” said Lucas, who is the mayor of Kansas City, Missouri. “It’s just telling of where we are right now in America that the president says that and each person just shakes their head and says, ‘yeah, that’s right.’”

Lucas said he and his colleagues often talk about how to manage school shootings — making the assumption they are inevitable in their communities.

“I feel like we’ve given up,” he said.

Mark K. Updegrove, a presidential historian, said Biden’s blunt comments about the limits of his power are not unlike the kind of private assessment that Lyndon Baines Johnson once gave to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in private about his lack of power to pass voting rights legislation.

According to Updegrove, Johnson told King flatly in 1964 that he didn’t have the power to get the bill through Congress.

In Biden’s case, the frank acknowledgment was public, not private. Updegrove said it struck him as a way for the president to put additional pressure on Congress.

“That’s the right message to send,” said Updegrove, the president of the LBJ Foundation in Austin, Texas. “‘I’m doing everything I can for gun reform. I’ve already done the extent I can do. It’s incumbent on Congress to act.’”

Biden reminded reporters Tuesday that as a senator he led the successful effort in 1994 to pass a ban on assault weapons as a way to reduce the use of “weapons of war” in shootings at schools, shopping malls and elsewhere. The ban stayed in place until Congress let it lapse 10 years later.

Since then, however, Washington has refused to reinstate the ban, and has largely failed to pass significant new restrictions on the sale, manufacture or distribution of firearms. Modest bipartisan legislation passed last year, and signed into law by Biden, offered incentives to local governments to set up red flag laws and made minor changes to background check laws.

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